Alex Woods is probably one of the most remarkably famous people in the world. That’s because he’s only the second person in recorded history (after Ann Hodges) who survived being hit by a meteorite. Alex was only 10 at the time, and his meteorite struck him in the head. That he lived was nothing short of a miracle. With this begins a chain-reaction that includes getting epilepsy and being bullied in school, leading Alex to Mr. Peterson – the American recluse and widower. The publishers of this novel call this “a celebration of improbable accidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that give life meaning.” Well, I couldn’t have summarized “The Universe versus Alex Woods” by Gavin Extence any better than that.
As the novel begins, Alex is 17 and being detained at the border in Dover after having driven from Zurich. After this confusing opening, Alex realizes that the only way people can get full picture – that is, not the story that the police or the media revealed in his case – is for him to start at the beginning. And this is how this coming-of-age story continues to full circle (and of course, just a little beyond).
My immediate reaction to this book was that Alex Woods is the 21st Century’s Holden Caulfield. For those of us who were forced to read “Catcher in the Rye” in school (no matter if you loved or hated it), let me point out the major differences between Alex and Holden. Holden was a tragic hero because much of what he hated about society and the people around him was ironically the same things he refuses to see in his own personality. Holden’s rebellion and stubbornness bring upon his own misfortunes, and most of his self discovery has to do with his sexuality. His desire to be a “catcher in the rye” he sees as a way to save children from adulthood, as he himself wishes not to grow up, but can’t avoid it. His poor academic achievements are in direct contrast to his intelligent narrative, but with a very naïve approach to life. Holden is abrasive and often crude, and despite his obvious love for certain people in his life, he does much to push them away and then is depressed by his loneliness.
Alex, on the other hand, begins with being a victim of circumstance that he was powerless to prevent. However, he never lets that spill into his personality. Although he doesn’t always see how his own actions sometimes bring about the difficulties he faces, he also learns how to take control of his life and situation, and we appreciate how he tries to avoid certain confrontations. That his epilepsy keeps him back a year in school never once infers that he is any less intelligent than the level of the story he tells. Despite this, he appreciates the fact that there are those who might not understand everything he’s talking about, and so offers explanations that are simplistic, and even somewhat child-like. These end up being very humorous passages, which endear him to the reader. And even as we watch him grow, he still has enough innocence about him to make us truly love him. Plus, while his situation distances him from being more socially adept with his peers (which he embraces), his connection with Mr. Peterson and the influence he has on Alex turns into a synergetic and very positive relationship.
With all this, one might think that these two characters are more different than alike. One point where the two converge is in the story telling itself. These are both fully subjective, first person accounts that (for the most part) are chronologically correct in how the events took place. In addition, both go through a certain maturing process while overcoming adversity and difficult situations (which is, of course, the definition of a ‘coming of age’ novel). But what really makes Alex Woods today’s Holden Caulfield is that they each speak to their generation, and they do it beautifully and truthfully.
While this might sound like it has “young adult” written all over it, let’s be honest: how many adults didn’t read the Harry Potter books (even if they hated to admit it)? And those books weren’t extremely well written (especially the last ones). Here, on the other hand, we have a masterfully crafted piece of literature that will appeal to both older and younger adults. Extence excels with his character development and his creativity in the plot show enormous talent. His language is both accessible and intelligent, with wit that is very reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s. It is no surprise that Extence includes references to Vonnegut’s works in the story, with occasionally includes quotes from them and other well-known classic novels that slide in perfectly with the action.
With all this praise, I have to admit to one tiny point that seemed incongruous to me, but it is so insignificant that it isn’t worth mentioning. With this debut novel, Gavin Extence has shown himself to be an author we should all be on the lookout for. So there is no doubt in my mind that “The Universe versus Alex Woods” is as close to genius as possible, and deserves a full five stars out of five.
“The Universe versus Alex Woods” by Gavin Extence will be released in hardcover and audio on June 25, 2013 and is already available on Kindle. Thank you to the publishers Redhook Books/Orbit of the Hachette Book Group for sending me an advanced reader copy via Netgalley.